From world leader to decline: The Belgian railway policy is derailing

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

This is a story for all those that need public transport to reach their workplace (and home, afterwards) in Brussels, and regularly get frustrated because of delays and strikes, write Michael Cramer, Bart Staes, and Philippe Lamberts.

Michael Cramer (Greens/EFA) is Chairman of the Transport Committee in the European Parliament. Bart Staes is a Greens MEP . Philippe Lamberts serves as an MEP for Ecolo.

Belgium used to be a world leader in rail. The first railway line that was opened on the European continent in 1835 was a connection between the cities of Brussels and Mechelen. It has one of the highest densities of electrified rail infrastructure. 

But today, the country is far from leading the way to the future. While most European countries step up efforts to modernise their railway systems, the previous and the current Belgium governments have adopted drastic budget cuts because of high losses and inefficient and untransparent financial management of its railways.

Infrabel and SNCB/NMBS are supposed to save €188 million this year and 2.1 billion euros in total by 2019. This sharply contrasts with the rest of Europe. France has stepped up infrastructure investment by €150 million this year, and Germany has increased resources for rail maintenance by 60%. The UK has adopted a 5-year rail investment plan worth £38 billion (52 billion euros) and the Netherlands intends to at least maintain investments at €2.4 billion each year.

But in reality, the country will pay a very high price for this wrong track. The measures hit Belgian railways hard, at a tipping point. Efforts carried out over the past 15 years should have improved efficiency and customer-orientation, but further improvements cannot be achieved with the same budget, let alone with a drastically reduced one.

Successful efforts in the past are measurable: Passenger numbers have risen by 58% since 2000. But it is also true that the number of seats has only increased by 10% over the same period. The satisfaction score has fallen from 7.44 out of 10 in 2004 to 6.51 in 2013. The new Transport Plan that entered into force in last December is seen as a step back by 9 out of 10 passengers. And in 2013, there were 3.5 times more train cancellations than 10 years ago – more than 20,000 in total. Finally, the final completion of the RER/GEN network around the capital has again been postponed until 2025 at the earliest.

In the face of Belgium’s daily traffic gridlock that threatens health, life quality and economic development, a real mobility strategy is urgently needed. The railways need to be at the heart of it. This does not mean giving up efforts to reach financial sustainability. With relatively modest investments, more transparency and efficiency within financial management, and without political positions, a lot can be done. Provided the existing infrastructure is better used (namely through a “Brussels Express Network”), investments are targeted at improving the services, and not only the aesthetics of certain expensive new stations, and subsidies are cut – for instance, for company cars.

Imagine what the country could look like if trains were more reliable, more punctual and more comfortable. What if there were more trains during off-peak hours, as part of modern public services? Belgium holds the potential to become a rail pioneer again – but the government must set the course!

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